By Nick Pernokas
Tommy and I had roped the night before in Abilene. Now, over breakfast, Tommy said, “Let’s go see Buster.” That was one of those statements that a horseman can only say yes to and after we paid the tab, we loaded up and headed west towards the tiny town of Merkel, Texas. On a dusty road outside of town, we pulled up to the Boyd Ranch, home of legendary cutter Buster Welch. At that time, in the early Nineties, Buster was at the top of his game and was considered “The Man” when it came to cutting horses. Tommy Houston leased some of his 12,000-acre ranch to Buster, rode cutting horses with him and trained some of the King Ranch horses that Buster didn’t think would make cutters as roping horses. In other words, Tommy made this trip frequently.
I had met Buster in passing at the horse shows, but I didn’t really know him. He may have been a “legend” to the cutting horse world, but he was a modest, gracious host that day to me and as he led me around the “cook shack” and showed me his extensive collection of antique saddles, I gathered he was incredibly well read. In the decades since that visit, I’ve wished many times that I’d had a tape recorder. He gave me a history lesson on not only why the saddles were built the way they were, but also on the personal lives of the makers. He was especially interested in local Sweetwater-area saddle makers, like S.D. Myres, and how they affected western history.
Tommy and I recently returned to visit Buster at his place outside of Abilene and this time I did have a recorder. Volumes have been written about Buster’s storied career: four NCHA World Championships, five NCHA Cutting Horse Futurity wins and inductions into the AQHA, NCHA and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fames. His childhood of running away to ride broncs and becoming a cowboy on the Proctor Ranches, then honing his skill at places like the Four Sixes and the Pitchfork Ranches would make a novel. The photos of Buster cutting cattle out of herds of thousands of head in the brush of South Texas on the King Ranch have become the picture that everyone thinks of when you say “cutting horse.” It was a career without equal and not without tragedy.
I wasn’t there that day to ask about these events. My question was simpler. At 93, Buster still can’t be mistaken for anything but what he is – a rancher and a cowboy. Wearing neatly creased pants, a trophy buckle and a crisp silver belly hat, Buster welcomes us into his comfortable home. Other trophy buckles adorn the coffee table and pictures of great horses fill the walls. We sit down and sip Buster’s favorite coffee which is Paul Newman’s.
I ask Buster a simple question, “What happened the day that you walked into Windy Ryon’s Saddle Shop to get him to build the first flat seat cutting saddle?”
“I asked Windy to do it,” remembers Buster with a simple answer.
Before the flat seat cutting saddles, cutters were riding the Bob Crosby saddle, as well as the Amye Gamblin saddle, which had fairly deep seats.
“The Amye was a good saddle,” says Buster.
These saddles were designed to give the rider a lot of security in his seat, with the idea being that it would help the cutter stay with his horse. In the early days of cutting horse competition, cutters rarely held the saddle horn and under some rules it was a disqualification.
Buster wanted a saddle with a little higher front and a little more swell. The lower, angled forward fronts of that time would pull the rider too far forward if he held the horn. Buster wanted the rider to be able to keep his back straight up while the horse moved under him. Buster thought that the Association swell that was used in bronc saddles would be a good shape for the saddle that he wanted. He also wanted a nice horn that he could hold easily around the top, although he acknowledges that many cutting saddle horns eventually went to extremes in height and narrowness.
“The cutting horse saddle swell came more or less straight up and let you brace back. The horn was just to brace on to keep me from going forward,” says Buster.
The flatter seat let the horse move more without having to take the rider with him.
“I didn’t want you sitting in a hole to where you couldn’t give a little. You need to be more flexible where you’re not working against that horse. If he’s tough enough to win, and he’s doing it right, you’re going to have to give a little.”
Windy Ryon offered to pay Buster $25 for every “Buster Welch” saddle that he sold.
“I told him, ‘Windy, you won’t sell three of those things, they look so odd.’”
Instead, Buster asked Windy to take care of his customers and put them in a good spot on the list whenever they needed a saddle. Years later, Windy told Buster that from then on that cutting-style saddle made up 90 percent of the saddles that he’d sold.
The man who actually made that first saddle for Buster was Bob Moline. Not only was Bob a saddle maker, but a painter and sculptor. In 2004, he told me about it.
Bob remembered it this way, “I made the first Buster Welch. It was between ‘66 and ‘68, and this is a picture of the saddle. See there’s my trademark, my feather. It was on a tree we’d used before (an Olin Young). The reason we went to this was that before this the cutters were using an Amye Gamblin, which was real high (in the front of the ground seat). Going from that to this, it’s a lot flatter, but actually it was an average seat. After I quit the business, they started raising the gullet and making the seat really flat. And it had a higher cantle. The horn has changed tremendously and the tree itself has changed. It was more of an Olin Young than an Association. And the fenders were just like we’d put on any ranch saddle, with full stirrup leathers. It was just like a regular saddle; except we went from an Amye to this seat.
I know one time Windy wanted a real flat seat. I said, “If you want it that flat, why even put a strainer in it? Why not just make it from leather?”
So, we made a few without a strainer. That lasted a while, and like I said I quit in ‘73, and so from then on there have been a lot of changes in cutters. That first saddle was made for Buster Welch and Windy gave it to him, so he wanted to make a fancy saddle. So, we went to the corner plates and silver roll. From then on we made a lot of fancy saddles and not just cutting saddles.”
Buster still wanted a little ground seat in the front of the seat, so that it wasn’t board flat. The late saddlemaker Wilford Lewis worked at Ryon’s at the time. In 2002, he told me about Buster coming to visit Windy.
“Buster come up there one time and was a little perturbed. He said when he said flat seat, he didn’t mean like a board. He wanted a normal seat, just not built up in front. So it was Buster’s idea, and Windy was an excellent manager at working things out like that. He wasn’t a saddlemaker, but he was a merchandiser and liked dealing with people, so he worked it out,” remembered Wilford.
Tommy Houston had Windy make him two roping saddles and he also appeared as a model in the famed Ryon’s Saddle and Ranch Supply Catalogue. He remembers Windy the same way, “Windy was a good salesman and always accommodating.”
Buster sums it up the best when he says, “It’s a real good, comfortable saddle. And you can kinda ride a bucking horse in it too, if you have too.”
Buster uses a picture of his late wife, Sheila, to illustrate what he considers good position on a cutting horse. The horse works close to the ground, reading the cow. Sheila is relaxed in the saddle, back straight. Buster points out that she’s letting the horse work and not telling him how to do it. “She was a good horseman, but she was a lady first.”
In the years that followed, many saddle tree makers and saddlemakers offered their versions of a “BW” or a “Buster Welch.” The name became synonymous with a cutting saddle.
“They made a lot of different versions that they called mine, but I never did bother with it,” says Buster.
But Buster’s ideas changed the cutting business.
“Actually I didn’t think of it for the industry; I thought of it for my students.” When Buster put on a cutting school, many students would show up with saddles that wouldn’t work. He kept a couple of old saddles to loan them and then would order new ones for them from Windy. Sometimes Windy would have their saddles finished before the school was over.
When Tommy first started going to Buster’s to help him work cattle, he’d ride his roping saddles. Finally, Buster sent him to the saddle house to get a Darrel Tidwell flat seat cutter.
“He said see if that doesn’t feel better,” remembers Tommy. “I sat down in it and it was hard as it could be. The horn wasn’t too tall, or too short, the swells were just about right and it had a deep enough seat. Buster said, ‘That’s a pretty good saddle,’ and it was.”
Buster told Tommy that he needed to get more “slosh room” in the seat. He told him that he needed to be able to scoot forward and back. Buster said that if you sit rigid, you can’t get anything done.
“I finally got a saddle that would let me slide up in that stop. Not leaning, and not gripping, but I was staying in the middle of my horse,” says Tommy. “He had it all figured out. But I never could see Buster move. It was poetry.”
Weatherford, Texas, saddlemaker Calvin Allen makes a cutting saddle that he calls the Buster Welch. Calvin is fortunate enough to be one of the few saddlemakers that Buster had a relationship with.
“The first saddle I made for Buster was a trophy saddle that I made for the Super Stakes in Fort Worth, in the early Eighties,” says Calvin.
Calvin usually waited until the winner told him how he wanted the saddle before he built it. Since Buster won the saddle, it really paid off for Calvin, because Buster came in and told him exactly what he wanted. Calvin was a cutter himself and was able to go out to Buster’s and ride with him. This let Buster show him just what he wanted.
“I told Buster that if he hadn’t been a horse trainer, he would have been a saddlemaker,” laughs Calvin. “I learned a whole lot from him.”
Calvin remembers Buster emphasizing that a cutter rides the seat of their saddle, not the stirrups or the horn. He wanted the rider to “slosh” in the saddle and be able to move freely.
“He’d say that you should hold the horn like you were holding a cigarette, using two fingers on the bottom,” says Calvin.
Calvin says that Buster liked a little bigger horn because it made it harder for his customers to pull on the horn. Calvin angled the cantles back a little to keep them from slapping a rider on a hard move. Buster also wanted his legs to hang straight down under him.
Buster told Calvin that he got the idea for the flat seat saddle from the old A fork Texas trail saddles. Buster liked the look of those old drover style saddles, so Calvin built Buster’s saddles with a larger square skirt. He didn’t drop the rigging dees lower, as he did on some of his other cutting saddles, because Buster liked a little higher, double-rigged dee.
“Working with Buster was a lifetime experience. He had an influence, not just on me, but a lot of other saddlemakers who made cutting saddles,” says Calvin.
When Buster wore one padded seat out, he cut it out of the saddle and found that he liked that. Calvin started building them without padding. Calvin feels that the hard seats actually work better for cutting. Buster’s input made a difference to Calvin’s saddles, but making a Buster Welch style saddle also helped Calvin’s business tremendously.
Calvin remembers the compliment Buster paid him when he picked up his saddle, “I never waited so long for something I liked so much.”
“Calvin made a good saddle, he really did,” says Buster.
Buster liked the way the square skirts looked and he liked the way they held a horse’s back. He didn’t think that a horse needed to be cinched as tight with them. Buster thought that some of the saddles with small, cut-down skirts didn’t stay in place as well.
“They just made it more of a saddle,” says Buster.
Buster didn’t stop at redesigning a saddle for cutters; he came up with a bit for them as well.
“These other bits that are so popular, a horse can’t get his mind off them; he’s always fiddling with them. I want his mind on that cow,” says Buster.
The Buster Welch style grazing bit came to be the “go to” bit for many cutters. Buster had found the original, forgotten and hanging in John King’s old tack shed.
It was a mild bit with aluminum shanks and a steel medium port mouthpiece that a horse could pack without becoming distracted by the rider’s hands. The curb chain could be tightened for more severity.
“If you ever hurt him with that bit, he’s going to pay a little too much attention to it. I just want him to look at that cow, but I want control. That bit gives me that. It’s really smooth and nice.”
Joe Stiles, manager of the King Ranch Quarter Horse division, helped with the production of the bits and they were marked with an “S/W” inside the shanks.
A student of history, Buster’s saddle collection is extensive. He has one saddle that he thinks “could have gone up the trail,” but a majority of them are from the Twenties.
“Probably the most cowboying was done in the Twenties. They were starting to fence and they were becoming a little more of a cow person than they’d been,” says Buster. “I think the Twenties would be a good time to have seen some, sure enough good hands.”
Buster feels that saddles were constantly being improved and contrasts his Texas Trail saddle, which he feels was flimsier and uncomfortable, with the later saddles that were built a little better.
It takes a thinking man in an unusual environment to come up with ideas that can change the world – even the horse world. Buster is a throwback to an earlier time. The American cowboy was always progressive and innovative in his equipment because he was charting new territory. Buster is a continuation of this legacy.
Buster has always worked cattle in the old Texas style. Tom Sawyer would have understood. Folks like Red Steagall and Helen Groves could be found sleeping in bedrolls alongside other cowboys at night. The talk around the campfire was an oral history of cowboys and horses: a clinic in horsemanship and life. The lure of the chuckwagon brought, and kept, his help when he was working cattle.
“I can work twice as many cattle in a week with a chuckwagon than I can without it,” says Buster.
“There’s a lot of romance in it,” agrees Tommy. “There’s something about eating a good meal, visiting a little, getting your bedroll out and being ready for tomorrow morning.”
The second half of this equation for success is a keen and inquiring mind.
The first time Tommy went to Buster’s house, he was sitting at the coffee table looking for something to read. The only book on the table was a book about Winston Churchill.
“I asked him where his (a popular horse magazine) was,” laughs Tommy. “He said, ‘I don’t do that stuff. Read that Winston Churchill, and you really might learn something.’”
Buster shows us the book he is reading now, which is a new one about George Washington as an entrepreneur. We talk about Washington’s early mule breeding program, the crops he farmed and his groundbreaking use of trademarks on the flour that he produced. The conversation then drifts into the attributes of World War II fighter planes and the P-38 versus the Messerschmitt in North Africa.
We say our goodbyes. The only thing that would have made this visit more perfect would have been a campfire and a wagon.
As you get older, goodbyes become more final. Tommy reflects, “It was my pleasure to be associated with this man, always, ‘cause I’ve learned a lot and I admire him.”
If Tommy wasn’t a cowboy, I’d say his voice shook a little. We climb in the truck. The sun sets on Abilene.